From the river to the sea – how global politics has abandoned the Middle East

I can barely decide whether to write or weep. The relentless bombing of Gaza is a tragedy of epic proportions.

Nothing excuses the atrocities committed by Hamas. But as things stand, a Palestinian child is being killed every 10 minutes from the bombings in Gaza.

Some 3,500 children in Gaza have died already; more in 3 weeks than the annual child deaths in conflict zones since 2019. I find it impossible to list this as ‘legitimate self- defence’.

Every time a civilian sanctuary – a hospital, a school, a refugee centre – is bombed the justification is the

same … Hamas has a military base in the tunnels beneath it. Vacuous politicians then repeat vacuous claims to avoid the words ‘war crime’.

European medics in Gaza confirm that these claims are rubbish. They turn the argument round, pointing out that the denial of food, water, energy and medicines are the collective punishment of a society, not the targeted pursuit of terrorists. Médecins Sans Frontières’ descriptions of having to operate on hospital floors, without access to anaesthetics take this further, moving accusations from the heartless to the sadistic.

We are long past the credibility of self-defence claims. Documents from Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence, unearthed by WikiLeaks, have made it clear that Israel’s response to Hamas’ atrocities was a plan to force the mass displacement of Palestinians from Gaza. It is what you normally call ‘ethnic cleansing’.

The documented Israeli plan revolved around the mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza to northern Sinai in Egypt. It was to unfold in 4 stages –

  1. Instruct Palestinian civilians to vacate north Gaza ahead of land operations;
  2. Sequential military operations from north to south Gaza;
  3. Routes across Rafah to be left clear; and
  4. Tent cities to be established in northern Sinai followed by new cities to resettle Palestinians in Egypt.

Israeli newspapers report that Netanyahu offered to pay off Egypt’s $20bn debt to the IMF if it agrees to settle Palestinians in the

Sinai desert. Egypt would be mad to accept. It will not happen. But the message is clear. This is about mass displacement not the pursuit of terrorists.

I am absolutely in favour of peace and security for Israeli citizens. I just want the same for Palestinians. In reality, you will never get one without the other. The trouble is that this is not Netanyahu’s plan. Back in 2019 he told his Likud Party –

“Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas.”

Hamas became his enemy of choice; the vehicle for dividing Palestinians and justifying the treatment of Gaza as an internment camp rather than the platform for a Palestinian state. Tit-for-tat bombing, tight control of water, energy, food and economic opportunities, guaranteed an atmosphere of festering resentment and underdevelopment. It also distracted attention from the systematic dismantling of Palestinian rights within the West Bank.

It is over 2 decades since my one visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories but its impact remains indelible. Stand in the middle of Jerusalem and you have pivotal places of worship for 3 of the world’s major religions all (literally) within a stone’s throw of each other. The place cries out for an equivalent status to the Vatican – an independent World City, able to function as the capital of 2 countries and a safe space for all 3 religions. But to suggest this remains a heresy.

No less troubling was (and is) the existence of the Palestinians as an unwanted underclass. The fact that our group of MPs played street football with Palestinian kids in the West Bank was viewed as a reckless flirtation with death by the Israeli hosts on the other side of Jerusalem. For us, the bigger challenge had been just matching the kids’ footballing skills.

But travelling round the West Bank was a bleak experience. Ramshackle housing reflected the fact that Palestinians couldn’t (and still can’t) get planning permission to build decent permanent homes. Standpipes and parched fields were testimony to the fact that nine tenths of the water supply went into Israeli occupied areas. Most staggering of all was the presence of roads reserved only for Jews. It was my only experience of asphalt and concrete carrying a religious veto.

The contraction of Palestinian lands gives only a partial insight into the relentless disenfranchisement of Palestinian lives. Each encroachment indicates how the West has chosen to look elsewhere when infringements of human rights and sequestration of lands took place. In doing so, the West betrayed the Israeli Left as much as the Palestinians.

Jewish socialists, who gave their lives to equal r ights and peaceful coexistence, have seen their work and values completely trashed in Israel’s lurch into Far Right politics.

Today’s video images of Jewish anti- war protesters, drawn from within

Israel’s religious communities, being beaten up by police in the centre of Jerusalem show how far Israeli politics has lurched to the Right.

This is why it is so important to draw an unbridgeable distinction between support for Israel and support for Netanyahu.

The one thing missing from my own visit was today’s West Bank images of armed Israeli settlers turning up to drive Palestinian families from their homes. In reality, the West Bank has become a contracting world of Palestinian fragments, each progressively besieged by Israeli settlers and the IDF. This too is all part of Netanyahu’s No (Palestinian) State solution.

From the river to the sea

Blessed are the peacemakers … for they shall be suspended from the Labour Party. This isn’t how I remember the saying, but it does look like todays political reality in Britain.

As Labour MP Andy McDonald found out to his cost, there’s now a knee-jerk reaction in Labour to any ‘river to the sea’ references. This has more to do with purging the Labour Left than anything else. But the caricature argument runs that the phrase is so deeply, deeply offensive to Jews it is little more than a not- so-subtle expression of anti-semitism. Saying you know Jeremy Corbyn amounts to the same thing.

The difficulty is that the phrase no longer belongs solely to militant Hamas. Israel’s Far Right use the same terms to describe a biblical land purged of Palestinians. Netanyahu’s Likud Party has something along the same lines in the opening of its political charter. Both extremes see a future only in the elimination of the other; a recipe for unending Middle East conflict with fewer and fewer international allies and no prospect of a lasting peace.

Andy McDonald ought to be lauded, not suspended. He raised an issue that lesser politicians have washed their hands of. Look at McDonald’s actual words. His call was for a space – from the River (Jordan) to the Sea – where Jews and Palestinians could live in peace and security and on equal terms. As difficult as such a call might seem this is the only basis for anything durable.

Those who defend Israel’s right to exist (and that includes me) must address this issue before the Far Right generate a level of international hostility that will suck the Middle East (and beyond) into unending conflict.

Already partial victories have gone to Hamas. Diplomacy talks between Israel and its neighbours have all collapsed. International hostility mounts over Israel’s collective punishment of innocent civilians. Russia and China rub their hands over the quagmire Israel’s Western ‘war allies’ are being drawn into. And if Netanyahu’s ‘final solution’ is to drive all Palestinians into the Sinai, extremists across the Middle East will use this to justify their own escalation of violence against Israel.

‘Peace, like a river…’

There is no easy path towards a meaningful ‘peace and justice’ resolution to the conflict in Israel. The West’s most useful contribution might begin by (humbly) bringing together the most inclusive and progressive Jewish voices worldwide.

In every country, progressive movements have always had Jewish voices at their centre. This isn’t about the West washing it’s hands of the problem but about the rest of us learning to listen to those who might, at some stage, have more chance of shaping the agenda.

For Labour, it means supporting Andy McDonald, not suspending him. It means re-admitting radical Jewish voices, not expelling them. And having the courage to run with an inclusive agenda for peace in Israel, not a lop-sided one.

Netanyahu would loathe this. Israel’s settler-Right would rail against it. Mossad would seek to discredit it. And Hamas would denounce it as betrayal. All present formidable obstacles. I just know that the saving of Israel will be rooted in justice and inclusion … or not at all.

Throughout writing this piece I’ve been stalked by the words of a Paul Simon song

Peace, like a river, runs through the city

Long past the midnight curfew we sat starry-eyed Oh, oh, oh, we were satisfied.

I wish I could bequeath this gift on Israel; a peace river to run from the Jordan to the sea, nourishing Jews and Palestinians alike. But such a river cannot be nurtured by bullets and bombs.

Alan Simpson

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